The Inexorable Rise of Angela Merkel

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By Jacob Heilbrunn


The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel
By Kati Marton

In 1852, Richard Wagner sent a lengthy letter to Franz Liszt about the sorceress Ortrud in his opera “Lohengrin.” He declared that she never experiences love because “politics are her essence. A political man is repulsive, but a political woman is horrible. This horror I had to represent. … In history there are no more cruel phenomena than political women.” Whether Angela Merkel, an avid Wagner fan, is familiar with this vituperative statement is unclear, but its sentiments would hardly come as a surprise to her. After the Christian Democratic chancellor Helmut Kohl plucked her from obscurity to become minister for women and youth in 1991, Merkel soon encountered the longstanding aversion to powerful women in German politics, let alone ones from the former East. The national media routinely referred to “Kohl’s little girl” and mocked her appearance. In the patriarchal Christian Democratic Party itself, a group of promising young men formed a secret pact in the early 1990s to try to impede her. Over a decade later, the Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder taunted her as “not commanding, pathetic.”

Yet the reserved and taciturn Merkel unerringly won out and served four successive terms as Germany’s first female chancellor, rivaling the tenures of conservative colossi like Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of postwar Germany, and Kohl, the father of reunification in 1990. By the time Merkel stepped down, she was the world’s most trusted leader.

How did she do it? In “The Chancellor,” Kati Marton carefully traces Merkel’s journey from the hinterlands of East Germany to the center of power in Berlin. A fluent writer, Marton seeks to unravel the Merkel mystery by penetrating the cordon sanitaire that she has erected around her personal life.

Marton’s biography builds on an authorized one by the German journalist Stefan Kornelius, which appeared in English in 2014. Marton’s ambitious account relies on wide reading in German sources, including interviews Merkel gave from 1990 until she became chancellor in 2005; numerous conversations with Merkel’s mentors, friends and colleagues; and background interviews with several members of her inner circle. She relates how her “own encounters with Merkel, dating from 2001, though not formal interviews,” enhanced her understanding of the chancellor.

Marton, who was married to the late Richard Holbrooke, a former ambassador to Germany, is the author of numerous books, including a widely acclaimed history of her Hungarian parents, “Enemies of the People.” She explains at the outset that her own childhood in Soviet-occupied Hungary helped her to fathom Merkel’s life and career, emphasizing that Merkel’s upbringing in a police state forms the key to her “supreme public reticence” and ability to camouflage her views. The result is a masterpiece of discernment and insight.

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    Some of Marton’s most arresting passages center on the early years. Merkel was born Angela Kasner on July 17, 1954, in Hamburg. Two months later her mother, Herlind Kasner, traveled with her newborn to the German Democratic Republic to join her husband, Horst, a Lutheran minister who had answered the call to serve the flock in the officially atheist East. It was a punishing existence. The Stasi was ubiquitous and the Kasners lived in an isolated compound of buildings belonging to the church called Waldhof in the little town of Templin. Merkel harbored no illusions about her homeland. “Later,” Marton writes, “Merkel would call the country of her youth a Lager, a word used generally to describe concentration camps.”

    Merkel sought a personal escape route by immersing herself in books and nature. One inspiration was Marie Curie, whose credo Merkel adopted for herself: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” Another was the Bible. According to Marton, “the young girl became as familiar with figures from the Old and New Testaments as other children were with characters from ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales.’” As a teenager Merkel stood out for her keen intelligence, winning the Russian Language Olympics in East Germany. Marton reports that she also secretly read a rare copy of the Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov’s courageous 1968 essay decrying nuclear weapons and the arms race.

    At the same time, Merkel joined the Communist Young Pioneers group. According to Marton, “Angela learned to navigate between worlds: singing Lutheran hymns in church, and miming Vladimir Lenin’s praises in school.” Her close friend Michael Schindhelm recalled that he and Merkel learned “from our Protestant parents how to keep our distance from the state, to put on disguises when the state came too close and to take off the disguises when the state was absent.”

    Studying physics at Leipzig University, a discipline the state could not deform with Marxist-Leninist ideology, offered a promising avenue for her zeal for knowledge. Marton points out that Merkel also wished to further her moral education. Through friends in the Lutheran Church, she managed to procure a copy of the West German president Richard von Weizsacker’s historic commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. Its forthrightness about German crimes and guilt left a deep impression upon Merkel, particularly because East Germany steadfastly abjured any obligation for the Nazi past. The party line was to glorify Communists as the real victims of the Third Reich and to defame Israel. According to Marton, “for the rest of her life, the Shoah — as she has always referred to the Holocaust — would be central to her leadership and to her conviction that Germany’s debt to the Jewish people was permanent.”

    In 1977 she married Ulrich Merkel, a fellow physicist, and divorced him in 1982. (She married her second husband, Joachim Sauer, in 1998.) With East Germany’s collapse in 1989, Merkel became a member of a party called Democratic Awakening, which eventually merged with the Christian Democrats of the West. From the outset of her entry into politics, Merkel prized cool logic over emotion, observing that “I often feel physically bothered in the presence of men, for whom the discussion isn’t about facts but only who can threaten the other more effectively.” Marton notes that Merkel’s male mentors and rivals alike fell by the wayside as she ascended: “Although she may not have torched her rivals directly, she also never ran for the fire hose as they were self-immolating.” This is putting it mildly. In the case of her benefactor Helmut Kohl, Merkel encouraged his opponents after he was exposed in 1999 for accepting secret campaign donations. Merkel declared, “It’s up to us to take our future in our hands.” Kohl was finished. “Calling out men for sanctimonious behavior,” Marton writes, “has been a source of quiet pleasure for Angela Merkel.”

    For all her admiration of Merkel’s prodigious talents, Marton has not composed a valentine. She notes that Merkel confronted the Russian president Vladimir Putin over his annexation of Crimea, but chastises her for pursuing the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline with Moscow at the expense of war-torn Ukraine. Toward China, Merkel has also pursued a Realpolitik course, elevating the fortunes of German automakers over any human rights concerns. Marton also zooms in on Merkel’s glossy assurance in 2015 that Germany could easily assimilate one million refugees from the Middle East, which triggered a backlash that boosted the Alternative for Germany, a far-right party that espouses a return to unabashed Teutonic traditions. Marton underscores that an aging Germany needs young immigrants, but that “Merkel missed the opportunity to make a stronger case for her policy — beyond asserting its moral correctness. Winning over hearts and minds is a role she never mastered, not a trivial deficit for a politician.”

    Still, Merkel’s “keep calm and carry on” chancellorship has allowed her to leave behind a stable, prosperous Germany. “A great deal of what she was able to achieve,” Marton concludes, “was not done in spite of her being a woman but because she was one.” For anyone seeking a guide to Merkel’s improbable odyssey, this book is it.

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